Different cultures and religions have their own way of mourning lost loved ones. For Jewish funerals, these customs date back thousands of years. One unique part of Jewish death practices is what’s known as ‘sitting shiva.’ When a family sits shiva, mourners traditionally sat on low stools while receiving condolence calls from friends and family.
Jump ahead to these sections:
The process of sitting shiva lasts seven days, and it helps the mourner experience all the complex feelings of grief in a safe space. There are many specific practices one does while sitting shiva that helps with healing.
One of these practices is to hold a minyan service. This is held daily over the course of the shiva, and it’s a form of comfort for many. In this guide, we’ll explore what happens during a shiva minyan service.
What is a Shiva Minyan?
A shiva minyan is a type of prayer service that takes place while sitting shiva. The word “minyan” means “count” or “number.” It specifically refers to a group of 10 Jewish adults. In Judaism, an adult is anyone over the age of 13.
Traditionally, this number would need to be only men. However, it’s common to include both women and also those under 13 in a modern minyan.
Why is the number 10 so important? This is the number needed to form a congregation. If a family gathers a minyan during the shiva, this is enough for congregational worship. Often a rabbi or member of the clergy attends the service to lead the family and friends in prayer. However, it can also be led by any Jewish adult.
During the minyan service, there is a prayer service that lasts between 20 minutes and an hour. It ends with the recital of the Mourner’s Kaddish. This is also a time for remembering the dead, delivering a eulogy, and talking about the history and meaning behind prayers.
The family can choose to hold a shiva minyan as many times as they’d like over the course of shiva. It’s typically held daily, but more religious families might choose to have several per day.
What Goes on During the Service?
During the service, the focus is on prayer and remembering the deceased. Visitors aren’t expected to prepare anything or contribute anything other than their presence. The minyan service is a way to offer comfort to grieving mourners during this difficult time.
As explained above, prayer is the key part of sitting shiva. When a minyan is gathered at the home where the family is sitting shiva, prayers are a sign of respect to the family and the deceased.
The most important prayer is the Kaddish. This prayer requires the presence of ten adult males (minyan).
Kaddish is an ancient Jewish prayer that’s recited usually during a synagogue service. It’s a form of giving thanks, and it’s also recited for the dead. This is a prayer that evokes universal peace, and it’s a way of comforting those in a time of mourning.
Other than the Kaddish, the family or rabbi has the freedom to choose any additional prayers. They might choose favorites of the deceased, or the rabbi chooses relevant prayers for the situation.
If called upon for a minyan, it’s common practice to bring food. Food is one of the strongest methods of Jewish condolences. It brings people together and also serves a practical purpose for families who are busy grieving. In Judaism, like other traditions, food is a symbol of life. To bring food is to embrace life even in the face of death.
Food doesn’t need to be homemade, though it can be. Store-bought or prepared food is appropriate. However, don’t bring liquor, candy, or flowers since these are not welcome at a shiva.
Another important part of shiva minyan is the well-wishes given by guests. It is considered proper etiquette for a Shiva Minyan to begin the service with well-wishes towards the family. When guests first enter, they go to the mourners as soon as possible. They might embrace, kiss, or shake hands.
When it’s time to leave, it’s considered polite to offer well-wishes to the surviving family. Guests wish for the bereaved to have good health, conform, and other blessings. Though these might just seem like words, they’re a source of strength for those struggling with a loss.
Get weekly reminders to live life fully.
We'll send inspirational quotes directly to your inbox.
Etiquette for a Shiva Minyan
Like all funeral customs, there are important etiquette points to know. If you’re invited to a shiva minyan, it might feel intimidating, especially if you’re not familiar with Jewish mourning practices. Pay close attention to these important things to know below.
Don’t knock or ring the doorbell
First, make sure you don’t knock or ring the doorbell when you approach the shiva home. The front door is typically left open or unlocked. This is because sitting shiva is a time for receiving visitors. To have a knock or other sound would be a disruption.
In the case that the door is locked or closed, knock quietly. Try to keep your disruption as minimal as possible. This is a time for prayer and silent reflection, and loud noises get in the way of this goal.
Bring food to the kitchen
If you’re bringing food to the shiva service as is recommended, don’t bring it to the mourning family. Instead, take it directly to the kitchen. If you don’t know where the kitchen is, ask someone quietly, preferably not the bereaved.
Keep your name on the dish with a note or card. When packaging food, consider using a disposable container or something you don’t need back. This makes things easier for the grieving family later when they don’t need to worry about returning a dish.
Participate in the shiva service
During the minyan service, you can expect prayers to be said for at least 20 minutes. While this used to be something that was open only to Jewish men, most services are more inclusive nowadays. That means it’s usually possible for you to participate.
Get involved as best as you can. Sit or stand with others, and remain quiet during prayers. If the rabbi or leader asks for stories or kind words about the deceased, feel free to offer something to the conversation. This is a time for remembering the person who died, so feel empowered to speak up when appropriate.
After the prayer service, there might be time for eating and conversation. If so, be respectful. When talking to the deceased, be kind in your language.
Let them know that you remember the deceased fondly, and share any happy memories you have of them. This is usually the best way to show your respect. Avoid saying things like “they’re in a better place” since this is not considered appropriate.
Feel free to talk to other guests, but be mindful of your conversation topic. It’s okay to engage in small talk, but the focus of this day is to remember the deceased. Be present and emotionally available for the mourners.
The mourning process doesn’t end after the shiva minyan. In the Jewish faith, remembering the dead is a big part of life. Check-in with the mourner after the shiva, and let them know you’re always there if they need anything.
It’s common to celebrate the anniversary of a family member’s death in Judaism, and you might be called upon to participate in this additional mourning custom. Be open-minded and welcoming. These events are one of the many ways Jewish people find comfort after losing a loved one.
Sitting Shiva and Jewish Mourning
Unlike other traditions and religions, Judaism allows ample time and space for mourning. Grief is a complex feeling, and it takes people weeks or even years to overcome these initial feelings of profound sadness and pain. Sitting shiva is an opportunity to focus solely on one’s grief while receiving support from friends and family.
If you’ve been invited to a shiva event as part of the minyan, this is a unique chance to be there for someone in a special way. As a friend or family member, you’re able to offer support during this difficult time just with your presence. Mourning is often a communal activity, so be an active participant in this comfort.
- “Shiva Minyan Information.” Congregation Emanu-El. Emanuelsf.org.